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Preview: Thunder finally get second shot at Spurs

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Can OKC go back to their old tricks, or are the Spurs in another class?

Giddy up!
Giddy up!
W. Bennett Berry

Barring a complete collapse, the San Antonio Spurs are a lock for the second seed of the Western Conference. The Warriors sit ahead of them with four less losses, amidst one of the greatest runs of all time. Below the Spurs sit the Thunder, who are 10 losses back of the Spurs. With only 18 games to go, there's really no chance of much shake-up there.

Nevertheless, the Spurs will keep winning until their seed is virtually mathematically secured. Furthermore, the Spurs lost to the Thunder back on October 28th, so they may feel a need to prove their higher seeding. Thus, I believe the Spurs will give their best effort to win this game. But the Spurs season hasn't been all glitz and glam thus far. From Michael Erler of Pounding the Rock:

It's difficult sometimes to put what the San Antonio Spurs have done so far in context. They go through large stretches of games --often against so-so competition-- looking rather ordinary, showing vulnerability in this area or that, but almost inevitably they find ways to break games open, to ruin their opponent's best laid plans. They ugly up games when their foes are playing too pretty and come up with stretches of beauty when their rivals want to play in the mud. More often than not they look slower, less athletic, and less explosive than the opponent, yet practically every night they can "out talent" the competition with five future Hall-of-Famers. Or sometimes a few of those living legends are out of action because of some reason or another, and the Spurs still win because they just out-basketball you.

Seemingly weeks go by without an impressive win over a worthy opponent, yet here they sit with 55 wins, the same as last year but in 17 fewer opportunities. They'll top last year's total, probably. Different facets of the operation seem lacking on different nights, and a few seem deficient more consistently, yet we look up and the Spurs have not just the best point-differential in the league but what would be the best in NBA history if they can keep it up. It doesn't add up sometimes, this whole that's greater than the sum of its parts, but if we can't figure it watching them night in and night out, then what are other teams to do when they see these guys once every few months, with hardly any time to prepare for them during the regular season grind?

That's scary enough. But you know what really scary? The Spurs are undefeated at home this season, having won 40 straight games dating back to last season. For reference, the Warriors record-setting home game winning streak is just 6 games longer, at 46.

How did OKC win game 1, and can it help us now?

The good thing is that there's definitely precedent for the Thunder to win this game. Here's the two important lineup adjustments that Donovan made back on October 28th, courtesy of me:

First of all, Donovan decided to run with Ibaka and Collison together at center and power forward. This happened with about 8 minutes to go in the third. That lineup forced eight straight empty Spur possessions right out of the gate, largely thanks to the interior D of Ibaka and Collison. Then, Donovan decided to play Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together for 8 minutes of the third and fourth quarters. The Adams-Kanter lineup ran a lot of HORNS, and went on a 9-3 run to start the fourth quarter. Interestingly, Donovan didn't run this lineup during the Pre-Season at all.

But Coach Donovan saved his best for last. For the last 5:26 of the game, Donovan went with the starters, minus Andre Roberson and plus Dion Waiters. The inclusion of Waiters turned out to be absolutely crucial. Dion hit two back-to-back mid-range jumpers during the last 2:11 of the game. Both shots were tough, with one contested around a screen and the other being a fadeaway on Parker. But Waiters shot them with confidence, and made the Spurs pay for forgetting about the shooting guard position.

Since then, things have changed a bit. Nick Collison played last night against the Timberwolves, but didn't play in the 5 games before that. Donovan has inserted Collison for bit defensive roles before, though. Hopefully Donovan is comfortable going to Nick tonight.

Otherwise, Dion Waiters is potentially out tonight due to dealing with the tragic death of his younger brother. But should Waiters be able to go, he has proven to be ineffective with the starters. Waiter's recent move to the bench has led to higher quality play. However, Waiters does still come on for the end of games. Donovan has been willing to go with both Roberson and Waiters in clutch situations, so it will be interesting to see what Donovan does here as well. With Waiters questionable for tonight and Roberson questionable with a lingering ankle injury, my bet is that Foye gets the start.

Three key matchups

Nevertheless, this game may come down to key matchups amongst stars. Popovich will likely cross-match Danny Green or Manu Ginobili onto Westbrook, rather than relying upon the smaller Tony Parker. Nevertheless, Westbrook as succeeded against Popovich's tactics before. Westbrook went for 33 in the first matchup, using almost exclusively the pick and roll game. The Spurs aren't exactly athletic, so Westbrook certainly has a little bit of an advantage there.

Kevin Durant against Kawhi Leonard is a much different story. In the first matchup, Durant worked mostly on-ball. Leonard stuck to Durant around screens, and allowed no room on post-up plays. But things might be different for KD this time, as he's working off-ball a lot of the time. Also, Durant is playing backup point guard nowadays. Will Popovich match Leonard's minutes, or will Durant get some opportunities against lesser defenders? On the other end, Durant will likely switch around screens. Thus, I'd expect Leonard to score a ton tonight, as he has the perfectly balanced skillset that allows him to win all mismatches.

How the Thunder handle Aldridge will also be very key. In the first matchup, Aldridge only had 11 points on 4 of 12 shooting. Since then, Aldridge has ascended to averages of 18 points per game on 50% shooting. Part of the reason the Thunder were able to handle Aldridge so well is Steven Adams. Adams forced Aldridge to shoot 1 of 3 during a twin towers third quarter lineup. But Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison also played a role. That game mainly saw Aldridge working in one on one situations. Thus, the Thunder should be careful not to leave Aldridge open in shooting situations. Aldridge's defender should be there to stop Aldridge, and not protect the rim. After all, the Spurs average the third most assists in the NBA. San Antonio will have no problems getting Aldridge the ball.

How tonight's game will go

The Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back, having played the Timberwolves at home yesterday. The result of that game certainly isn't encouraging, as the Thunder really struggled against a Timberwolf team bound for the lottery. The Thunder are facing serious long-term ballhandling issues, dating back to the benching of Cameron Payne on February 21st.

Furthermore, the Thunder really struggled to get shots for their wings against the Timberwolves specifically. But it's not as if Foye, Morrow, or even a possibly returning Waiters are delivering consistently good performances. Perhaps they might score better if given the ball in good position? Donovan appears to be dead set on using the KD point guard lineup for now, though. Morrow will likely see extended minutes off the bench if either Waiters or Roberson are gone. I'm not looking forward to seeing Manu Ginobili off the bench.

Durant played 38 minutes against the Timberwolves, while Westbrook played 36. KD and Westbrook will see similar minutes tonight, so let's hope their endurance is up! Especially considering the Clippers are just two losses behind.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 102, San Antonio Spurs 100.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 66
@
spurs
44-21
(Lost 1)

55-10
(Won 2)
March 12th, 2016
The American Telephone and Telegraph Center, San Antonio, Texas
7:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Your Local American Broadcasting Company Affiliate (KOCO 5 in Oklahoma City)
Injury Report: Dion Waiters (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: Oct 28 (W 112-106)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Tony Parker
Randy Foye SG Danny Green
Kevin Durant SF Kawhi Leonard
Serge Ibaka PF LaMarcus Aldridge
Steven Adams C Tim Duncan